We used to call them “cool chicks.” They were the girls who, when I was in college in the 1980s, were left-wing, wore their hair in an unorthodox or punk style, read books and didn’t take shit from anyone. They loved Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion and Anne Sexton, but could also talk to you about Henry Miller, Tom Wolfe and Naked Lunch. I still remember one, Tess. I fell for her when we met in a DC bar. A New Kids on the Block video popped up on the nearby video screen. “Twinkies,” Tess sneered, then smiled at me and lit a cigarette. She was self-confident. She wasn’t what Gen Z feminists are—hectoring, didactic, nasty.
The foremothers of the “cool chicks” of the 80s are probably the women depicted in the new film Oppenheimer. The main one that illuminated the screen for me is Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, a communist who has an affair with Robert Oppenheimer in the 1930s. Whereas in Barbie the male characters are useless morons, Tatlock and Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” set off sparks through a exhilarating back-and-forth about books, art, and politics. When they first meet at a party filled with communists, she starts explaining the dogma of Marx. He retorts that it’s different when you read it in German. She marvels that his library has so many books that aren’t related to science or physics. One of them is the Bhagavad Gita—in Sanskrit. She plants herself on top of him, opens the book, and tells him to read a line: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” That leads to sex.
Pugh is magnetic whenever she’s on screen. She smolders with sex appeal and sharp intelligence. Compare that to the resentful, dour feminists lecturing the audience in Barbie. Like this seminar delivered by a character named Gloria: “It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough... I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing a woman, then I don’t even know.” I am woman, hear me kvetch.
Then here is Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, beautifully played by Emily Blunt. Kitty’s far ballsier than her husband, telling him tospit in the faces of the 1950s red-baiters who are calling him a communist. When Oppenheimer falls apart after Jean dies by suicide—they were having an affair even though he’s married—Kitty pulls him up by his lapels. “You can’t be such a sinner and have people feel sorry for you,” she says. When Oppenheimer’s finally cleared of the political railroading that deprived him of his security clearance in the 1950s, Kitty still refuses to shake the hand of one of the men who didn’t fully support him.
There’s definitely something generational going on here. I recently saw an interview with quintessential Gen-Xer Bret Easton Ellis, and he was emphasizing how strange he finds it that young generations care so much about what people think off them. “They really want to be liked and need to be liked,” Ellis said. “When I was their age I just did not care about that at all.” It’s true. Ellis reminded me of a comment I saw on a YouTube video a few weeks ago. The video is old footage from a 1980s dance club. The comment: “They all look so confident.” We weren’t all that confident—all young people are insecure in different ways—but we also weren’t the pathologically wounded and resentful women depicted in Barbie. The “cool chicks” of Generation X had much more in common with women like Jean Tatlock and Kitty than Taylor Swift, who doesn’t seem so much tough as bitter.
There’s a great line in Oppenheimer: “Just because you are brilliant doesn’t mean you have wisdom.” Robert Oppenheimer was brilliant, but also, as Cillian Murphy, the actor who portrays him, said, “naive.” The people around him who had wisdom—as well as sexual frisson—were the women.